Matthew Oulton reflects on the Batley and Spen by-election.
On Polling Day in Batley and Spen, I went to sleep fairly pessimistic about our chances. The day had begun for me with an alarm at 4:45 am in the spare room of some generous Labour Party members who lived near Huddersfield and ended at 1:30 am the next morning at home in Merseyside. So, when I woke up a few hours later and saw Kim Leadbeater claiming victory, it was a fairly emotional moment for my sleep-addled self.
The win was by no means straightforward. We’ve been in opposition for over a decade; we should not be losing Labour-held by-elections. It turns out that the unmitigated disaster of 2019 was, in reality, a near miss in many seats. Likewise, the support for George Galloway among Muslim voters is a reminder that in today’s politics voters cannot be left feeling taken for granted. There is always somewhere for them to go.
Nevertheless, there are also several positives we can take away from the campaign. The first, and perhaps most important, is that inspiration and enthusiasm goes a long way. As a candidate, Kim was as much as we could ever hope for. She never lost her cool, despite intense pressure and aggravation on several fronts, she maintained a brutal pace throughout the campaign, and she kept her head above the fray of negative campaigning. The capacity to inspire is an underrated skill in the Labour Party. Too often, factionalism – essentially someone’s position on a narrowly defined political spectrum – dominates over leadership qualities. We’re ultimately often asking people to abandon a safe, individualist model that they understand, in favour of a promised future in which we are stronger together than we are apart. That’s a scary proposition, and it involves some degree of risk. Candidates like Kim gain the trust of voters, which they need to change the country.
Secondly, we saw a real battle between a hopeful brand of politics from Labour, and the politics of fear from George Galloway. Now, don’t get me wrong, Galloway’s strategy was very nearly successful. He attracted over a fifth of votes, very nearly allowing a Tory victory. But there was a real shift in the last week or so of the campaign, after the nastier elements of his campaign came out. He went from inspiring voters, to trying to scare them. The video of Kim being berated over her attitude to LGBT rights and her own sexuality backfired, because it was so obviously aggressive and unpleasant. Likewise, I was involved in the altercation in which men threw eggs at Labour activists, punched a campaigner in the face, and kicked him on the ground. Again, this elicited an angry and negative response among many members of the Muslim community, who saw this attack as an affront to decency and democracy.
On the evening of Polling Day itself, Galloway supporters curb-crawled next to me and another campaigner as we knocked on doors. Through a megaphone, we were told that this was a ‘Galloway area’ and we should ‘go home.’ This sort of menace has been used by our opponents before, and we should expect it to be used again, but it evidently can be overcome.
Finally, the contest should dispel any lingering despair we might feel over the state of the Labour Party. Yes, we’re as far from power as we have been at any point in decades. Yes, Boris Johnson appears to be politically untouchable. Yes, the country faces dramatic challenges, and we need a Labour government more now than ever before. But Batley and Spen shows that the power of the Labour Party as a movement of people is as strong as ever. Two days before polling day, a call went out in the North-East for more activists to come and help. Like a rose-shaped bat signal, hundreds of Labour Party supporters arrived in Batley. A motley crew of working-age people, students, and retirees, from all over the country came, because, as one volunteer put it to me ‘I heard Kim needed help.’
For all the cynicism today towards politicians and politics, these people had nothing to gain. They came up because they felt they could make a difference. And with 323 votes in it, each person no doubt did make a significant impact. So as tempting as it might be to concede that we will never win, that things will never change, or that the Labour Party is not capable of making a difference, I can’t accept that. An organisation that is capable of mobilising people like this for a single seat in West Yorkshire can win elections and be a vehicle for real progressive change. Tonight, I go to sleep optimistic; the challenge ahead is vast and daunting, but the Labour Party is more than capable of overcoming them.
From Merseyside, Matthew is an Economics Student at the University of Warwick. He’s the Secretary of the Economy and Finance Network and writes frequently on economic issues. In his spare time, he worries about Labour’s path to victory and daydreams about a progressive Government.